This traditional Bosnian polenta with caramelized onions and peppers is vegan and made with the most basic cornmeal recipe. Sautéed raw onions and peppers transform into tender, luscious, and ever so slightly charred ribbons.
A simple step-by-step tutorial explains how to prepare polenta properly and what different options are available.
Update Notes: This recipe was originally published in April 2012. It was updated in June of 2020 with new photos and great recipe tips.
Why this polenta with caramelized onions and peppers works:
- It’s frugal
- You’ll only need a few basic pantry ingredients
- It’s quick and easy to make
- It’s delicious and filling
What is polenta?
It is a firm porridge made from boiled cornmeal. The dish, which was already popular with the ancient Romans, is also an integral part of international kitchens.
Where does it come from originally?
Polenta is an absolute traditional dish in parts of Spain, Provence, and especially in northern Italy. For a long time, it was considered poor people’s food because it is cheap to prepare from millet, spelt, and fine corn flour, making you feel full.
But: Those who have little, know how to use it creatively. And maybe that’s why cornmeal recipes are so versatile today.
In some southern US states, a very similar dish is called grits. Grits are made from ground corn kernels to a creamy porridge and served with shrimp, cheese, or meat stews.
In Bosnia and most of the Balkans, cooked cornmeal (aka Pura, Zganci, or Palenta) is often served as a light lunch or supper topped with golden-browned vegetables or with farmer’s cheese and buttermilk.
The popular topping in winter is crispy bacon and sauerkraut, but caramelized peppers and onions are favored with polenta year-round.
My love for polenta is relatively fresh because, for a long time, the golden yellow porridge was stored in my memory as an indefinable “slush.”
But there were not many foods I liked as a kid, and every ingredient deserves a second chance. A few extra crispy polenta fries later, I completely fell for it.
How to make polenta with caramelized onions and peppers?
*Keep scrolling to get the full (printable) recipe, ingredient amounts, and more tips, or click on the “Skip to Recipe” button at the top of the page.
- Mix cornmeal, water, oil, and salt in a saucepan.
- Bring to a boil, then gently simmer, continually whisking until thickened.
- Meanwhile, cook onions and peppers until caramelized. Serve with cooked grits.
Creamy or crispy: this is how you cook polenta like a pro
Whether crisp, gritty, or creamy, the feel-good dish is filling, extremely changeable, and – depending on the variety – made quickly.
“Making it is a real tough job,” an Italian neighbor tells me and shakes her head sympathetically. That’s not precisely true unless you want to go old-school with your recipe:
- “Classic” method: For the Italian original, untreated corn grits are slowly sprinkled into boiling salt water and stirred, stirred… and stirred clockwise. For at least 1 hour and without a break, because the corn grits burn in no time. Without this preparation, the polenta is difficult to digest and causes stomach grumbling.
- “Suitable for everyday use” method: If all of this is too tiring for you, I have good news for you: You can usually buy it pretreated in the supermarket. This means that the fine granules are pre-steamed and are therefore ready for the plates after only 15-20 minutes.
- “Turbo” method: still too long? Well, OK, for the very impatient, there is always the instant version, which is ready after 5 minutes.
Cooking polenta: classic, creamy and good
It takes less than 20 minutes for the corn grits to turn into the creamiest, golden porridge. The preparation can take shorter or longer, depending on how finely the cornmeal is ground or which type you buy.
Instant polenta is ready after 5 minutes. Whether short or long – the preparation is effortless.
Frequently asked questions:
1. COARSE OR FINE, WHAT WILL IT BE?
Polenta can be fine, coarse, or a mix. Fine to medium-fine grain sizes are suitable for creamy porridge. Medium-fine to coarse corn grits are intended for cut-resistant polenta. My pantry is always stocked with Quaker cornmeal.
Learn the difference between cornmeal, corn flour, cornstarch, and maize in this Chilean polenta recipe.
2. HOW MUCH POLENTA DO YOU CALCULATE PER PERSON?
Even in small quantities, polenta makes you full. As for the main course, you’ll need about 3 oz. per person, and as a side dish about 1.5 oz. of the cornmeal.
3. THE RATIO OF CORNMEAL AND LIQUID
The instructions on the cornmeal package suggest a 1:4 ratio – one part cornmeal to 4 parts water. However, I find that a 1:3 ratio is just the right amount for me. I don’t like my polenta too mushy.
Variations/make your own:
- Make it in a slow cooker. Recipe by Epicurious.
- Make it in a pressure cooker/instant pot. Recipe by Food Network.
- Try it with sautéed mushrooms and spinach.
- Cook cornmeal in chicken or vegetable broth.
- Add garlic.
- It tastes sweet and creamy when you prepare it with milk.
- Season the cooked cornmeal to taste with grated parmesan, parsley, butter, salt, and pepper.
- Serve with maple syrup alongside eggs for breakfast.
Polenta with a difference: fried, baked, or sweet
POLENTA FROM THE OVEN
Are you hungry for an extra portion? Then prepare polenta on a grand scale. Simply double the recipe, pour into a greased baking dish and sprinkle with cheese. It will need about 15 minutes in a 420F oven to sizzle to a golden brown.
Not in a mood for a casserole? Then make polenta pizza: Spread a thick layer on a baking sheet with parchment paper into a round flat cake, top as you like, and bake in the oven at 420F for 15 minutes.
SLICED POLENTA IN A PAN
If you prefer something crispy with a golden-brown crust on your plate, polenta is a perfect choice. When you let it cool (best to refrigerate until set), it becomes firm, and you can cut it into slices, diamonds, squares, sticks – oh, just cut it into any shape.
A quick sear in butter for 2-3 minutes on each side and polenta slices are wonderfully brown and crispy.
For the sweet tooth, you can prepare it with milk, a pinch of salt and a little sugar, and have creamy breakfast porridge ready. Let it cool down and fry delicious polenta pancakes in the pan.
A few more berries, nuts, and maple syrup on top – the perfect breakfast is waiting. Or go for a dessert and make with milk, cinnamon, apples, and pecans. It’s so versatile!
People also asked:
1. HELP, MY POLENTA WON’T SET!
Cook until the cornmeal has absorbed all the liquid and thickened.
Are you sure you have the right product? Fine corn flour is not the best to use, especially if you want to cut it. Coarse cornmeal gives the mass more stability. Let it cool down sufficiently – first at room temperature, then in the refrigerator. Only then will it be cut resistant.
Use an extra sharp blade for cutting, which you rinse off with cold water in between slices. So you get beautiful, straight edges.
2. WHAT NUTRIENTS ARE IN POLENTA?
One thing is clear: the dish is quite filling and high in calories – without adding butter, cheese, or other extras. If you want to make your polenta as lean as possible, it is best to mix it with water and season with lots of fresh herbs and spices.
Like potatoes, rice, or pasta, corn porridge mainly supplies carbohydrates. It is not particularly nutritious, but it keeps you full for a long time and is also free of gluten.
3. HOW LONG CAN YOU KEEP POLENTA?
Cooked too much again? You can keep the finished dish in the fridge for 2-3 days. The rest of it tastes especially good if you fry it crispy in the pan.
Packaged in portions, you can also freeze polenta cuts and thaw them as you like and fry them again.
Caramelized onions and peppers also freeze well. Prepare double the amount and use them on salads, pizza, quesadillas, fajitas, as a topping for burgers and steaks, or over sweet potatoes.
4. WHAT TO SERVE WITH POLENTA?
Polenta is a welcome change to rice, potatoes, and pasta. It goes well with roasted Mediterranean vegetables, spicy tomato sauces, and seafood.
Serve alongside vegetable ragù, stew (goulash), fish, braised meat, sausage, liver, and other hearty meat dishes.
More yummy recipes with cornmeal:
- CHILEAN SHEPHERD’S CORN PIE
- PARAGUAYAN CHEESE AND ONION CORNBREAD
- SLAVONIAN POLENTA BEEF CASSEROLE
- ITALIAN APPLE AND FIG POLENTA TORTA
Polenta with Caramelized Onions and Peppers
- Non-stick saucepan
- 1 cup yellow cornmeal
- 3 cups of water
- 3 tablespoons oil divided
- 2 teaspoons salt divided
- 1 medium onion sliced
- 1-2 bell peppers any color, sliced
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- To garnish: chopped fresh parsley optional
- Mix cornmeal, 3 cups water, 1 tsp salt, and 1 tbsp oil in a medium-size saucepan. Bring to a light boil over medium-low heat, whisking occasionally. When polenta starts to bubble, lower the temperature to low and constantly whisk, keeping the cornmeal from lumping up and sticking to the bottom of your pan, until desired consistency is reached, about 10-20 minutes. You want to be able to lift it with the fork, so it should be pretty thick.
- Meanwhile, heat 2 tbsp of oil in a large skillet. Add sliced onion and bell pepper(s) and sauté over medium heat until vegetables are softened, about 5-10 minutes. Add 1 teaspoon of each salt, pepper, and sugar and cook 5 more minutes.
- To serve, scoop the caramelized vegetables over polenta and sprinkle with parsley if desired.
- The instructions on the cornmeal package suggest a 1:4 ratio - one part cornmeal to 4 parts water. However, I find that a 1:3 ratio is just the right amount for me. I don't like my polenta too mushy.
- The cooking time may vary depending on the variety of the cornmeal. The correct cooking times are noted on the package instructions or do as I do - cook until it's done. 🙂
- An essential part for perfect polenta: constantly whisk so that it does not burn. Don't use a wooden spoon; a whisk will break up clumps and make polenta that is creamier throughout.
- A constant slow cooking and steady low heat is the key to bring out the blended consistency and taste.
- Not a fan of big chunks of sliced onions and peppers? Chop them as small as you wish instead.
- Substitute oil with butter.
- Serve it with a side of fresh salad. Top with sour cream or buttermilk or add feta cheese.
- For the best results, read additional tips in the post above.
- Nutrition information is approximate and meant as a guideline only.